SEARCHLIGHT -- Let the Tea Party begin.
"Welcome to the real America," said Norman Halfpenny, retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant, as he and other volunteer Tea Party valets greeted hundreds of overnight campers who staked out prime real estate to get a front-row view of today's "Showdown in Searchlight."
A steady stream of RVs, motor homes, trucks, vans, jeeps and cars of every sort arrived a day early for the red, white and blue, U.S. flag-festooned festival where Republican rock star Sarah Palin will rally conservatives at noon in Sen. Harry Reid's hometown to call for his and the Democratic Party's defeat.
Up to 10,000 people are expected at the event, where former GOP vice presidential candidate Palin is the big draw. But organizers weren't sure exactly how many supporters would join the Tea Party Express rally that kicks off a 20-day, 44-city tour to Washington, D.C.
Halfpenny, 77, of Lake Havasu, Ariz., made the 75-mile trek to Searchlight with his wife, Paulette, to help get the open air desert site 2.3 miles north of town ready for the influx and to direct traffic. He wore fatigues and a T-shirt that read: "We the people rally for liberty, Searchlight, Nevada, 2010."
"We're Republican by registration, but I'd even vote for a communist right now if they would start to change the way we're running the country," Halfpenny said, adding he thinks Democrats in power are leading the nation toward socialism, a Tea Party lament. "We need to get our Constitution back."
Halfpenny's buddy, Jeff Gerod, 62, and Gerod's wife, Cindy, also came from Lake Havasu.
"We need to go back to the government of the people, by the people and for the people -- I think that's how it goes," Gerod said, adding that he voted for the Republican ticket of Sen. John McCain and Palin in 2008, but didn't think McCain was conservative enough. "I got a problem with Palin right now because she's backing McCain" in his re-election bid. "But I'd still probably vote for her again."
On Friday, dozens of workers and volunteers added extra portable toilets for a total 38, erected a stage on the back of an 18-wheeler, prepared sound trucks and cables for media and set up a place for overnight RV, trailer, truck and van camping on the wind-swept desert marked by Joshua trees.
By evening as the sunset kissed the low, rough hills, more than 50 RVs were camped on site. In the day, U.S. flags fluttered in the chill March air under a sunny sky as early arrivals chatted, walked dogs and shared snacks, offering plates of crackers, cookies and popcorn to next door RVers.
In town, the Searchlight Nugget was packed for lunch, and owner Verlie Doing, a Reid supporter, had her staff preparing a "Tea Party special" breakfast and lunch menu for today that included her famous 10-cent cup of coffee. The 20-item menu included some real gut-busters, including the "high desert special" breakfast of a jumbo corn muffin filled with sausage and onions, topped with scrambled eggs, "smothered in country gravy" and served with potatoes, all for $6.50.
"We're going to be eating leftovers if we don't get all these people we expect," Doing said. "Business sure has picked up since they said Palin was coming to town.":
Across the street, the Democratic Party was preparing an open-air event for Reid supporters with at least a couple hundred Nevadans expected to attend, said party spokeswoman Phoebe Sweet. They'll serve tea and doughnut holes -- in honor of the Medicare fix -- for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch during their counter-Tea Party gathering from 8 a.m. until noon, according to Sweet.
Reid supporters also will go out around town to show "some visibility" but have been cautioned not to confront any Tea Party members and to be on their best behavior, Sweet said.
"We've been real clear with our volunteers to tell them that they should not engage the Tea Party people. The whole point is not to be confrontational," she said.
Like Reid, the Democratic Party has publicly welcomed the Tea Party rally, saying it will be good for the town, and the senator invited people to stop by the Nugget to join Verlie for some coffee.
"This is the most the Republicans have done for the economy in a long time," Sweet quipped.
As for Reid, he's scheduled Saturday morning to attend an official opening of a shooting park in Clark County and at night a dinner in Las Vegas where former Vice President Al Gore is speaking.
In Searchlight, the town is divided about whether to support Reid.
Jack Collins, who owns Jack's Trading Post, is a Republican Reid supporter and friend. Reid and his wife, Landra, are customers, buying Navaho pottery from his place alongside U.S. Highway 95.
"I think he has a lot of talent and has done a lot for the town, although I'm not exactly on the same political page as him and I don't like the crowd he's running with these days," said Collins, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and President Barack Obama.
At the rally site, Cheryl and Donald Rowland, who have lived in Searchlight for 10 years, parked their Gulf Stream for the night and helped local organizers who said they're fed up with their neighbor Reid. Their motor home had homemade signs, including one with a plea: LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE.
"I don't feel that Senator Reid is representing constituents," Cheryl Rowland said in a quiet voice as she shared chocolate chip cookies she brought with a fellow volunteer. The registered Republican didn't say whom she supports among two dozen contenders who have jumped into the U.S. Senate race -- and who will get a chance to speak at a pre-Palin candidates' forum on the rally stage.
Instead, Rowland held up Palin as an example for conservative Republicans to follow.
"I think she's ready to be president because she can relate to the people," Rowland said. "She's interested in talking to people. She comes across as a very nice person."
Some others gathered ahead of today's rally, however, didn't express as much confidence in Palin, saying the former Alaska governor is untested, though she's a charismatic speaker for the conservative cause of less government, less taxes and less intrusion in Americans' lives.
"I got nothing to say positive about that woman," Douglas Hoffner of Las Vegas said. "I think she's a ding-a-ling. She's unqualified. She's popular, but that's just charisma and that does not make somebody a leader. Nobody is qualified for public office now."
What about Obama?
"Obama's an ideologue and a socialist," Hoffner said, adding he came to the Tea Party rally because a friend invited him and he was curious to see the spectacle. "It's Woodstock minus the LSD."
Tony Turnisky, 67, came all the way from Alaska to hear Palin speak, though he made a pit stop at his daughter's home in California before piloting his single-engine Cessna to the Searchlight airport where his was the only plane on the tarmac beside the dusty, unmanned landing strip.
He arrived in town pedaling his mountain bike and looking for shelter. He scored the only room left in at the 21-room El Rey Motel where the manager agreed to rent him a room with a broken heater.
The retired insurance salesman said he voted for Palin as governor in Alaska, when she was on the GOP presidential ticket, and would support her again because she represents what he sees as a different sort of conservative politics that comes more from people than power brokers in Washington.
"I think we should eliminate this Tea Party name for this movement and just call it the American people," Turnisky said. "We're of no party. We're of a single idea, and that idea is to take back the country and have less government and less taxes."
At the rally site, people were repeating the same mantra.
"We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore," said Vicki Gowey, a registered Republican who traveled with her family and Labrador-mix dog Roxxi from San Diego to attend. "I'm out here to show my support for the Tea Party, which wants to take this country back."
Palin is scheduled to fly into the Searchlight airport today after campaigning in Arizona during the morning with McCain, a man Tea Party conservatives don't generally support.
Dave Alexander, a Las Vegas tour guide, was already selling souvenir T-shirts Friday featuring a yellow-flag "Don't Tread on Me" motto that's a Tea Party favorite. He said he came out to Searchlight to make some money at $15 a T-shirt, but also to see Palin, who might run for president in 2012.
"Sarah Palin gave me the courage and the incentive to get off my La-Z-Boy and stop cussing out the politicians on TV and start getting out and do something," said Alexander, smoking a cigarette and wearing a red, white and blue baseball cap. He said he would sleep on site in his Toyota Tundra double-cab pickup with a couple friends. His lunch was spray cheese on Ritz crackers.
"We'll be roughing it a bit, I guess," he said.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.